“I don’t have friends, I have family.”
So Vin Diesel’s Dom Toretto declares in Furious 7, one of many nods to the motor-oil-is-thicker-than-blood theme of the entire $6 billion Fast and Furious franchise, which at its core—aside from the speedy cars and the increasingly wild things you can do with them—is all about friendship, the kind that defines the concept of ride or die in more ways than one.
But while some actors just report for work and go home at the end of the day, over the course of a decade the core cast also started to consider themselves a family. And when Paul Walker died in a car crash Nov. 30, 2013, at the age of 40, Diesel felt as though he’d lost a brother.
The 54-year-old actor, who skipped the first sequel after the sleeper success of 2000’s The Fast and the Furious, ultimately co-starred with Walker in five Fast and Furious films, including Furious 7, which was still in production when Walker died. Diesel hopped on a plane to California right away when he heard the news, concerned especially about his goddaughter, Meadow Walker, Paul’s only child.
“Pablo, I wish you could see the world right now… and the profound impact, your full life has had on it, on Us… on me,” Diesel wrote on Facebook a few days later, invoking his affection nickname for Walker, the Spanish-language equivalent of Paul. “I will always love you Brian, as the brother you were… on and off screen.”
“I thought they needed my strength, but realized when I got there and broke down before his family, that it was I who needed theirs,” he also recalled the heartbreaking moment he reunited with Walker’s mom, Cheryl, and others. “His mother hugged me and said I am so sorry… I said sorry? You’re the mother who lost a son?… She said yes, but you lost your other half.”
That was a week after the accident, and Diesel returned to social media often to share thoughts and memories
“There was always moments of child-like laughter…We had accomplished so much by 2013…P.s. The complexities of Brotherhood, and the painful void… of it’s absence,” the actor wrote on Facebook Jan. 2, 2014, one of numerous tributes he’s shared over the years honoring his friend.
But while the grief flowed forth as one might expect following such a tragic loss, one felt throughout Hollywood as Walker was remembered as one of the most genuine good guys you could hope to meet, their nearly 15-year bromance was the real deal, one rooted in the franchise’s scrappy beginnings.
“Do you remember, back in 1999, when you and I were doing research and we went to an illegal street car rally?” Diesel asked his co-star during a joint Q&A session for Movie Fone ahead of the May 2013 release of Fast & Furious 6. “And about a half an hour later, you and I are running from helicopters and wondering, Was this too much research?” Of course Walker remembered. “It was awesome,” he said.
Diesel recalled, “When we first did this, we were thinking we had an opportunity to do a Rebel Without a Cause. We thought that we were doing a classic car movie and we would do one and that would be it.” Instead, he continued, there they were, wondering if the plan would be to then make “seven, eight, nine? Or seven, eight, nine, 10.”
Needless to say, they called each other brother as they shook hands and signed off. Barely six months later, Walker was gone and the cast and crew of Furious 7 was left to somehow regroup.
On The Jonathan Ross Show in October 2015, Diesel gave a shout-out to Universal, calling the studio “wonderful and exceptional” for rolling with the production’s desire to change the ending to give Walker a proper send-off: Cop turned FBI agent turned Dom’s partner in crime (and brother-in-law) Brian O’Conner heading off into the sunset with Jordana Brewster’s Mia and their son, Jack.
Walker’s similarly handsome brothers Cody and Caleb stood in as body doubles for Brian’s remaining scenes, and their presence on set was a comfort for Diesel.
What it did more than anything was said the family validated what we were doing,” Diesel told Extra in 2015, “and just seeing them there, wanting to protect the legacy of someone they care so much about was an empowering feeling, and they were just so generous and unrelenting in wanting to help and do anything to help us finish this legacy and complete this task that we had. That was the most important thing ever for us.”
In announcing the film’s release date, Diesel shared a pic of Dom and Brian, writing, “The last scene we filmed together…There was a unique sense of completion, of pride we shared… in the film we were now completing… the magic captured… and, in just how far we’ve come…Fast and Furious 7 will be released…April 10th 2015!”
“P.s. He’d want you to know first.”
By the time it was released (later bumped up to April 3), Diesel had named his third child, born that March, Pauline.
“Sometimes I’ll post a picture on Facebook or talk about Pablo and people will say, ‘You know, just move on,’” Diesel told Jonathan Ross later that year, “but the relationships in that franchise are so strong and the brotherhood so real, that it transcends the experience of making the movie. And you spend 15 years going from being a nobody to somebody with a brother…and then one day he’s gone, and it’s a very heavy experience.”
Doing press for Furious 7 did provide some catharsis as well, Diesel having plenty of happy memories to talk about, such as their sun-drenched time on the set of 2009’s Fast & Furious, the fourth movie in the franchise but his and Walker’s first together since the original.
“We were hanging out and talking about how we finished shooting in Mexico,” he told Extra. “We’re drinking beers and next thing you know, I get clotheslined into the pool, I have to say it brought me back to being a kid and brought me back to my own siblings and the fun we used to have together and we were just cracking up in the pool.”
Explaining his decision to return to the franchise for Fast & Furious, Walker—an admitted “gear head” who loved cars but was also interested in branching out into juicier acting roles—told Australia’s Girl.com.au in 2009 that he loved the heart of the first film (2 Fast 2 Furious was super fun, he said, but it didn’t have that familial soul) and he basically saw it as a good opportunity to go and hang out with his friends.
“Our chemistry is that we don’t have any chemistry,” he said with a laugh about himself and Diesel. “That’s the funny thing. He’s East Coast, I’m West Coast. You know? We respect each other as human beings. And that’s about all it takes, you know? We get around, we laugh. But we have such two totally different approaches to this whole game.”
In that, he knew Diesel was very comfortable living that movie star life, while Walker had many other interests driving him.
Asked about the inevitable next film and whether he’d want to be in it, Walker said he would truly want for it to be the best one yet, not just a vague “bigger and better” situation.